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Auditor-treasurer job sought by Tangen, Moe

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Becker County Treasurer and Auditor Ryan Tangen and challenger Larry Moe have something in common -- they both worked for the State Auditor's Office in Detroit Lakes.

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Tangen left four years ago to become county treasurer, and also took on the auditor duties in June after Keith Brekken retired.

Moe stayed with the state auditor's office, where he has worked for 18 years, transferring to the Moorhead office when the Detroit Lakes office was closed during the state budget crunch three years ago. He still lives in the Detroit Lakes area, commuting to work.

The county board this year voted to combine the auditor and treasurer's offices into the auditor-treasurer's office, so this is the first year that office will be on the ballot in Becker County.

Tangen and Moe both appeared in a candidate forum Thursday in Detroit Lakes, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce, and carried live on KDLM Radio.

Moe grew up on a farm in the Thief River Falls area and graduated from the university of North Dakota in 1987, with a degree in business administration and a major in accounting.

He has audited a number of counties around the area for the state's annual audit.

"This is a position that nobody has held before (in Becker County). Rather than drive two hours a day back and forth to Moorhead, I thought I would try this," Moe said in his opening statement.

Tangen, who has lived in the Detroit Lakes area since 1997, has degrees in accounting and business.

Tangen said that, as treasurer, he has effectively managed the county's $20 million in investments, and he said he has been frugal, noting that his department's 2006 budget "is still less than the 2002 budget I inherited."

Tangen said that under his supervision this year's countywide audit "was the smoothest audit ever," requiring 50 percent fewer hours and saving the county about $13,000 in auditing fees.

"I am committed to the county and think government should work for you," he said in his opening statement.

The state doesn't require auditor-treasurer candidates of have any sort of financial training or experience, but it would be very difficult to do the job without it, Tangen said. "Expertise in financials is a definite plus," he said. "The consolidation of these offices is a complex process -- there's a lot more to it than a lot of people understand. I'd like to continue in office and do my best job."

Moe said that after 18 years of conducting audits, he has "a whole lot of experience with county officials, and I've seen a whole lot of systems in different counties -- there are ways I can help set up the financial system to pull the information quicker and easier for annual audits." Moe added that he is an easygoing person and very dependable.

Asked about the biggest challenge facing the office, Moe said it is the looming issue of paying government employee pension and health benefits -- local government is only now being required to account for those future obligations, and it will be a big expense when they are also required to fund them.

Tangen said the biggest challenge facing the auditor-treasurer will be the almost-immediate need to consolidate the two offices.

"Right now we literally are running two different offices, and there's no cookie-cutter approach to combining them ... counties do it a lot of different ways. We need to analyze the office, eliminate duplication of duties and make sure we maintain checks and balances and adequate internal controls."

Asked if the auditor-treasurer should ever disagree publicly with the county board, Tangen emphatically said "yes."

"It is our job to look out for the finances of the county. The board makes policy decisions," he said. If the two conflict, the auditor-treasurer needs to speak out.

Moe said disagreements will occur, but should be worked out in a civil manner. "We should all get together and talk this out and see if there's a way to smooth over the disagreement."

Neither candidate seemed very happy with the level of county reserves -- 30 to 50 percent of annual expenditures -- recommended by the state auditor's office, but Moe said he is not in a position to criticize state policies, since he is employed there and required to carry the policies out.

There are times when higher reserves are called for, such as when a county is saving for a project. "It's good to have some money for a rainy day," he said.

Tangen said the recommended levels of reserves change with whoever is holding the state auditor's job.

"I lean towards 50 percent on hand for counties," he said. "Reserves are needed for unexpected expenditures like the $1.4 million in cuts from the state (passed down during a state budget crisis several years ago).

The county did not have to use its reserves then, opting instead for budget cuts, but it's good to have adequate reserves on hand, he said. "It planes out the highs and lows," in the county budget so the property tax levy doesn't have to jump around to catch up to the budget, he said.

(Look for more stories from the candidate forum in Wednesday's Becker County Record)

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